Sources of Law in the American Legal System

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  • 0:01 Sources of Law
  • 0:42 The Constitution
  • 1:15 Statutes
  • 2:15 Regulations
  • 3:17 Common Law
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The rules that govern society come from a number of places. This lesson will cover the sources of law in the American legal system. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Sources of Law

Everywhere you look, there are people or systems in place that prevent us from harming ourselves or others that serve as remedies should we be harmed. Your mother or father may have been, for all intents and purposes, the source of law if you were to misbehave. If you play a sport, you know that the game is governed by certain rules, and officials are on hand to ensure that they are followed. The same can also be said for almost every action we take in our everyday lives. These rules and regulations come from a number of places, and some take priority over others. In this lesson, we will briefly discuss the sources of law in the American legal system, including the Constitution, statutes, regulations, and common law.

The Constitution

The order in which we will take each source of law will follow how much weight our legal system gives each source. Thus, our first source of law, the Constitution, is the most important source of law we have. In fact, the Constitution includes a supremacy clause, which establishes itself as the supreme law of the land. The Constitution outlines the structure and power to which our different branches of government are entitled. It also has a list of amendments, including the first ten known as the Bill of Rights, which outline the protections and rights that are reserved for citizens of the United States.


The next source of law, which stems from the Constitution, are statutes. Statutes are written laws passed by the Legislative Branch of our government. The words 'law' and 'statutes' for our purposes here are fairly synonymous. Statutes have binding legal force and carry consequences of punishment if they are not followed. In the United States, our federal, state, and local governments are all controlling authorities, so they are the ones that create the rules we are to follow. Furthermore, the purpose of laws is to promote justice and prevent harm. In other words, laws are meant to encourage good.

For example, the legal drinking age in the United States is 21 years old. This law exists to make sure you don't hurt yourself or others. Furthermore, all of the laws that are passed by a legislature are collectively known as its statutory law. So, all of the rules that you come into contact with on a daily basis would all fall under statutory law, as would any other type of rule or law you can imagine.


Our next source of law also stems from the Constitution. The Constitution gives the Executive Branch, and the agencies within it, the power to enforce laws passed by the Legislative Branch. Thus, regulations are specific requirements that have the force of law that allow federal agencies to enforce acts passed by Congress.

So for example, back during the Progressive Era, Congress addressed an important social need when they passed the Pure Food and Drug Act to protect people from eating ill-prepared food and possibly getting sick. The federal agency of the Food and Drug Administration was created shortly thereafter and was given the power to enforce this Act. The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, is empowered to create regulations to make sure consumer goods are prepared and transported safely. Agencies like the FDA are also empowered to level sanctions or penalties if their regulations are not followed. In addition to the FDA, there a large number of other governmental agencies who are given the power to enforce laws.

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